Friday, August 31, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 2: The Rescuers Down Under

In the story of the Disney Renaissance (the legendary animation comeback of the late 80's and 90's), there's one film that's always lost in the shuffle, glossed over in favor of its more successful - or more controversial - movies of that period. In fact, when starting this retrospective, I had to correct myself on what year it was released (1990 incidentally).

The Rescuers Down Under was a rare beast, a direct theatrical sequel to one of the company's animated films (the first time Disney would do this, and the only time until they released Pixar's Toy Story 2 in 1999). A much cheaper version of this kind of animated sequel would become standard fare for bad Home Video releases during the latter half of the decade, and well into the 00's. This saturation of junk product is a huge part of what diluted the Disney brand to a dangerous degree before Pixar more or less took over, and nearly killed the company's animation department all over again.

Which is a shame, because The Rescuers Down Under really deserves a better legacy than that. Incidentally, don't be surprised if this installment runs a bit longer than Part 1, because while the film itself may have been modest, its history and what it accomplished in the medium are anything but.

Now understand, I'm not going to make a case for this film as some sort of lost/misunderstood masterpiece. Because. . . well, it's not. The Rescuers Down Under isn't a great film - it walks an awkward line between recycling elements from the original and not doing enough with the returning cast, creating a movie who's location and story focus often feel at odds. On the other hand, it remains a decently good movie by merit of some spectacular animation set pieces (coming in part from some friends of ours) and some damn good character work.

Loosely based on the Rescuers novels by Margery Sharp, Disney's original featured a pair of globe-trotting mice, members of the Rescue Aid Society, traveling to a remote location to help rescue a young child from a greedy kidnapper with the help of local wildlife. The sequel has this exact same plot, only in Australia! Yes, this reeks of both repetitious sequels (of which there were plenty that decade) and "hey, what are people obsessively interested in?" focus testing following America's short-lived interest in Paul Hogan, but it's hard to keep a wearily cynical attitude once the film bombards you with it's jaw-dropping opening sequence.

And instead of trying to describe it to those who haven't seen the film or may have forgotten, here it is:

That's a small bit of genius right there, showing you a mouse-eye view of the world before demonstrating just how IMMENSE the landscape is (demonstrating the film's scope), then even establishing a lot of character details about Cody with a few simple visuals (the airplanes and the telescope in particular). The film's opening also makes a promise of lush animation, soaring set pieces executed with a combination of cutting edge computer technology and hand-drawn visuals. And the movie makes sure to deliver on this promise early and often. In point of fact, Down Under holds up as one of the most singularly gorgeous films of the era with a warm palette, intricate character animation, and a fantastic coherence in design. The location scouting and animal study that the film's animators undertook is on prominent display, making even a rare silent character (the golden eagle Marahute) gorgeous and expressive.

Also, I'd be terribly remiss if I went too long without mentioning Pixar. That's right, our buddies in the more techno-focused duchy of the Magic Kingdom had a huge hand in creating this movie's iconic flight scenes (among other things), being the creators of the Computer Animation Production System, or C.A.P.S. In fact, C.A.P.S. marked the first collaboration between Pixar and Disney, the fruit of which we've all seen. Other animated movies had used CGI elements prior to Down Under, from smaller elements in The Black Cauldron to the Big Ben finale in The Great Mouse Detective, as well as for several pieces in Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid. But they're more prevalent here by far, serving in major roles (creating complex environments for long tracking shots, or animating entire mechanical constructs) that would later come to rely heavily on CGI in films that blurred the line between hand-drawn and computer animation. Many of the effects rely heavily on the flat, sharp angles of early modeling tech, but in the dizzying flight through Manhattan or the clanking behemoth of McLeach's truck, it's easy to see the DNA of Tarzan's tree-surfing or Brad Bird's titular Iron Giant.

To say nothing of giving us an early look at what the makers of Toy Story were capable of.

However, none of this would be anything more than an interesting technical exercise if the film weren't compelling, and in spite of previously-stated problems, it is. This is in part because of some great voice casting, including both Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor returning as Bernard and Bianca respectively, the late great John Candy as the albatross Wilbur, and the legendary George C. Scott as McLeach. Though on reflection, it's rather odd that the only major character who sounds at all Australian is Tristan Rogers as Jake the kangaroo mouse (the RAS contact and guide in the outback). The two principal casts, split between Cody/his animal friends/McLeach and Bernard/Bianca/Jake/Wilbur, may as well be in two different films until the third act when all the elements are finally brought together, but the grace with which directors Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel switch between them forges a feeling of proximity in the narrative regardless.

These are also really well-drawn (sorry, couldn't help it) characters. McLeach, the kidnapping poacher trying to locate an endangered golden eagle, is a rare balance between the 2 broad villain types that tends to appear in Disney films. Call it the middle ground between Prince John and Maleficent. A large part of what makes him work is a combination of Scott's growling vocals and the script's unflinching nature regarding his murderous intentions, and it makes him a credible threat even during his rare pratfalls. Cody is likewise a compelling and active hero, a good parallel to his mice co-stars in that he's already something of a "reverse rescuer" when the film opens, communicating with animals and freeing them from poacher traps. Even animals themselves never trade too much on "oh that's so cute," opting instead for distinct personalities and memorable quirks, though there's more than a little physical comedy.

But the real star here is Bernard, and this is where Down Under plays its other trump card. Bernard's journey from reluctant tag-along to confident hero is well-structured, believable, and - most importantly - keeps the core of his character (the soft-spoken sensitive foil to Jake's boisterous Crocodile Dundee analog) intact during his development. Bernard isn't a traditional action hero even when behaving as one, much like Cody during the boy's own daring actions, and this both endears him to the audience more and makes his romantic pursuit of Miss Bianca all the more sympathetic. Bianca herself gets a bit shortchanged in the character department, but she's also never relegated to the role of bimbo or damsel in distress.

Many of the film's critics described it on release as a triumph of production weighed down in unimaginative or cumbersome storytelling, and to be honest I find it hard to disagree too fervently. However, the film has an undeniable charm to go with its visual splendor, both in the sense of child-like wonder through which we're first introduced to the outback, and in the dangerous beauty that we learn such a country poses to heroes large and small. It also forges a deliberate symbiosis between man and nature along the way, going to great lengths to demonstrate how both need the other (being sure to reverse the roles several times) to survive.

In this way, I suppose Bernard and Cody both wholly belong in this film together, even if they're not face-to-face until the last few minutes.

So if you haven't seen this one before, it's definitely worth a watch. If you have and it's been a goodly while, give it another viewing. You might find a pleasant surprise, and if nothing else it's a guilt-free treat for anyone with kids looking entertainment a bit less vapid and pandering than the usual schlock sent their way.

So that's The Rescuers Down Under, the "forgotten" film of the Disney Renaissance (well, as forgotten as a movie currently sharing 35th Anniversary packaging can be). Next time, we'll take a look at another fairy tale adaptation, one that not only captured the hearts and minds of audiences worldwide, but one that even changed the face of the Academy Awards in its wake. I hope you'll be my guest for Beauty and the Beast.

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